March of the Stars and Planets (a practical demo)

Beginning observers get pretty excited as the sky begins to open up, and it honestly takes a few times to begin to realize that is has a hidden beauty until one learns a few disciplines to understand what is being observed. Last night (July 4) I sat outside in the evening (about 10:30 EDT) to do a quick sketch using just my eyes. It is the same type of sketch you can do if you are a beginner if you have followed some of the lessons. For more detail procedures, you can get the course we have written (Astronomical Observing from a Biblical View) at our site ( in the Files Gallery. For now, let’s take a look at the sketch and I will explain what was developed in the 35 minutes that I did it. During the next 4 nights, you can watch the same scene, except the moon will move eastward each night.
If you adapt your eyes to the dark and you have a clear night with a fairly good sky, I want you to find Polaris (the North Star). We have done this in the lessons a couple times, but you may already know how to find it. Then turn around 180 degrees so you are facing south. Note the brightest “stars”  that are little above the horizon (about 30 degrees or so if you live in the mid latitudes like I do). Especially note any objects that are red-orange. If the time is about 10:30 or so (remember the sky “moves” about 15 degrees an hour toward the west), you should see 3 bright red-orange objects. The one to the west southwest (just shy of west) is Mars. The one in the middle (a little west of south and not quite as bright) is Saturn. Further to the east is Antares. To the right of Antares are her (as I call it) “trio” that is a set of 3 stars going almost up and down. If you look at the sketch, you can find these objects labeled. I have compass directions noted as I looked over the southern sky.

Last night the moon was well to the right of Saturn. Tonight it will be right next to Mars, making Mars harder to see. Tomorrow night it will be closer to Saturn. The next night it will be further to east — approaching Antares.

Saturn, while a bigger planet, is not as bright as Mars. Antares is just about as bright as Saturn. So, you will not my dots for the objects are sized (as we have taught people to record) by apparent brightness.

We also taught some basic measuring techniques using outstretched arms and a hand. So using that same technique, I marked approximate measurements between the objects using an outstreteched hand at arms length (about 20 degrees) or a fist (which is about 10 degrees). While I cannot represent the three dimensional sphere in a flat sketch, the relative distances between the objects and the compass directions that are noted means that the observing sheet is fairly well scaled. I have slightly exaggerated the vertical so Saturn is shown a little too high.

You can also note that as you look to the far left or east (if it’s clear)  you can see the whitish area of the southern part of our Milky Way rising. I have labeled that on the sketch as I saw it.

If you are near the equator, the scene will be closer to directly overhead. If you are near 50 degrees latitude in the northern hemisphere, it will be just above the horizon.

You will find on the sketch other elements like date, time, compass directions, my observing location, a title, and a signature — all things we want teachers to teach students to record. So this is my record of the evening’s southern sky.

It was a good night to give thanks. Rather than put it on the observing sheet, I will cite it a scripture here that comes from Isaiah 45:12. It is still true.

“It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshalled their starry hosts.”

You can see another description in Genesis 1:14-19 (day four of creation).

Now….go try to do this yourself…and have fun locating the same things. Try making an observing sheet of your own!

Day Four Observing Site
Crozet VA USA

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